Resilience, Hope, Movement

Above, members and community gather at all four legislator rallies locations throughout the city to a push new a charter accountability bill package, on Friday, May 12, 2017.

 

School Board election ups the ante for organizing and being strike-ready by 2018

Educators are wonderful, you are wonderful. Congratulations on completing another academic year. Every year that you finish, you have touched that many more lives, have shaped the future more indelibly, and have strengthened our profession for the long-term through your accomplishments.


And yet, hand-in-hand with these congratulations, this is a time for serious reflection.


On May 16, in the LAUSD School Board elections, we took a loss. There is no sugarcoating this. 


We are so very proud of our candidates, Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla, for standing up to the billionaires and their unprecedented attack. We are proud of Steve and Imelda for staying true to who they are — Steve an educator, counselor, and social justice champion, and Imelda a youth advocate, community organizer, and economic justice leader. We look forward to continuing to work with these remarkable champions.


We are so proud to be educators and to be part of this union, collectively, with you. UTLA shattered records as members came out in unprecedented numbers to walk precincts and phone bank. Educators were an essential ingredient in the dynamic labor, community, civil rights, and school-level-to-national-level coalition that organized with Steve and Imelda.


As I crisscrossed the city recruiting volunteers for the School Board campaign, I was inspired by the commitment, energy, and participation of Maria Zia and the Lassen Elementary educators, George Williams and the Bancroft Middle School educators, Lesa Van Daalen Wetters and the Westwood Charter educators, Javier Cruz and the 20th Street Elementary educators, and so many more.


Five take-aways from the election

As we do with all campaigns — whether they be contract campaigns, school-site fights, or election campaign — we will analyze this School Board election, probing for what we did well, what we need to do differently, and what we can learn. We will be reflective in the knowledge that we often learn more from our losses than we do from our victories. We encourage everyone to engage in this type of productive reflection. 
That said, there are five takeaways we can see very clearly, even before deep analysis.


Money played a big role in our loss. The billionaires, their lobbying firm (the California Charter Schools Association, or CCSA), and related organizations plowed $13 million into this race, making it by far the most expensive School Board race in U.S. history, dwarfing the amounts spent on many big-city mayor’s races and U.S. Senate races. And it was part of a dramatic upward trend in spending by the privatizers: CCSA and the billionaires put $3.5 million into the 2013 L.A. School Board races, $4.5 million into the 2015 races, and then jumped to a different order of magnitude with $13 million this year.


It is the second record-breaking effort on the billionaires’ part in just over six months. In the November 2016 elections, CCSA and allies spent $27 million en route to winning state legislative races in 23 of the 26 districts the organization endorsed across California. It was the first state election in California history in which the charter industry outpaced all others in political donations—surpassing oil, pharmaceutical, and all other industries.


This November-May one-two punch is the billionaires’ and CCSA’s counterattack after they suffered several defeats between 2014 and 2017: John Deasy’s resignation as LAUSD superintendent; a resurgent UTLA, with our 10% raise, extension of health benefits, increased presence in Sacramento, and broad coalition with the community; Tamar Galatzan, Alex Johnson, and Marshall Tuck’s election defeats for School Board and state superintendent; the wide community opposition to the now-sputtering Broad-Walmart initiative to put half of all L.A. students in charters; an increasing number of charter scandals and critical charter studies and research; the passage of school funding measure Proposition 55, whose predecessor, Prop. 30, was opposed by many of the billionaires in this School Board race; and an increasing number of prominent organizations taking stands, including the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charters. We are proud to have been a crucial part of handing CCSA and the billionaires many of these defeats. Make no mistake about it: The $27 million they spent statewide in November and the $13 million in L.A. in May is their counterattack.

 

  • We have moved the needle in a positive direction on the most important existential question for the civic institution of public education in Los Angeles: the issue of the unchecked growth of unregulated independent charter schools. The billionaire-funded candidates did not win these School Board elections on a message of continuing this unchecked growth—this is a significant departure from corporate candidates five years ago, who campaigned vigorously with that message. In other words, even though we know what their privatization agenda is, even the billionaires are realizing that it is now not popular to promote mass charter expansion. This gives us leverage with the public in the ongoing struggle. We’ve also been successful in getting a meaningful legislation package introduced to bring accountability and transparency to charter operations, ensure equity and access for students, and invest on the state level in Community Schools.

 

  • The outpouring of participation of our members in these elections, and in the vibrant May 12 actions at state legislators’ offices that boosted our legislative package and our election precinct-walking numbers, should energize us. The outpouring of youth, community, and civil rights organization support for our Community Schools resolution at the LAUSD Board should buoy us with optimism. 


Truths that turn us toward the future

Moreover, as we continue to organize and strengthen ourselves for our contract campaign for the Schools L.A. Students Deserve — with demands for protection of active and retiree health benefits, salary increases, class-size reduction, increases in HHS staffing, improvements in special education, investment in a Community Schools model, empowerment at school sites, and more — there are additional crucial take-aways from the May 16 School Board election that orient us more toward looking forward.

 

  • We are educators. We have been here before. We plan, we create, we go all-out, we do it with love, passion, and energy — and, sometimes, we are knocked down. We get back up, we dust ourselves off, we analyze and learn from our situation, and we go back at it with even more creativity and passion.
     
  • We have each other, as part of a collective, a union, a set of communities connected to students and parents, and as part of a movement locally, statewide, and nationally.
     
  • We know others have been through this — this supports our resilience and hope. In New York City, one of the most labor-strong cities in the country, educators and allies were defeated three times at the ballot box by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who, over 12 years as the mayor with control over schools, fundamentally steered public education toward a problematic corporate model. Educators and communities persevered, in struggle, and now have a mayor who is more supportive and building a Community Schools model. In Chicago, one of the strongest teacher unions in the country, with the deepest community ties, lost to a cadre of billionaires and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also controls schools, at the ballot box in 2015. This was only one chapter in a six-year battle with him and his privatization agenda. Through the course of this ongoing struggle, including going on one strike and to the brink of a second one, the Chicago Teachers Union has won improvements in working and learning conditions, investment in a Community Schools model and, remarkably, a contractually based pause in charter school growth. Resilience, hope, movement.
     
  • The results of this School Board election will require us to shift some of our tactics, some rather dramatically, but our overall organizational strategy must remain the same. Over the past three years, we have constructed an organizing model, through which we have addressed citywide issues, district policy, and school-site representation and contract enforcement. The most basic building block of the model is to build and use our collective power. We have seen many victories. Now, we must reflect, use constructive criticism, and adapt tactically — all of us together, listening to each other — in order to invest in and improve this power-building model. In this way, we must move on to address additional issues at school-sites, citywide and other levels. Our overall organizational strategy is sound — another reason for optimism.

Yet, all of this occurs at a time when we are seeing the Trump/DeVos proposed budget, which includes the most draconian federal cuts to education and investment in the privatization of schools ever seen, with dramatic implications for students and school districts across the country. We are anticipating the Trump administration and Supreme Court’s legal attack on unions and collective bargaining.

All of this leads to the most important take-away of all from the past two weeks—one that I centered my speech on at the July 2016 Leadership Conference and has been a part of every school-site meeting I have done since then. 


We must be strike-ready by February 2018

As I stated in that 2016 speech, no matter who is on the L.A. School Board, the district is going to attack active and retiree health benefits as our agreement expires in December 2017. No matter who is on the L.A. School Board, as our contract expires in June 2017, the district is going to attempt to continue to undermine real class-size reduction using their escape clause, Article XVIII, Section 1.5. No matter who is on the L.A. School Board, the district will attempt to defy logic and deny salary increases even as we head into a national teacher shortage.


As I said in that July 2016 speech and many times since then, we will engage in good-faith bargaining with the intention of negotiating meaningful and positive agreements without a strike. But, we will not be able to achieve that without the leverage of being truly strike-ready, and without the recognition that we very much may have to strike in order to win. And we can win.


Moreover, no matter who is on the L.A. School Board, California languishes between 40th and 50th among the states in per-pupil funding. No matter who is on the L.A. School Board, the state of California has a legal construct that is extremely permissive in allowing the mass, unchecked, unplanned authorization of independent charter schools. This policy on charters has undermined the civic institution of public education financially, in terms of the ideal of equity and access for all students, and in terms of the ideal of safeguarding public, taxpayer monies. These state policies on funding and charters, which have gone unaddressed for far too many decades, fundamentally undermine our local bargaining.


UTLA, as the second largest teachers’ union in the country, can bring pressure to bear on these issues, working alongside a broad community and civil rights coalition—the seeds of which we have planted through Reclaim Our Schools LA, the California Alliance for Community Schools, and the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. It is only through UTLA being strike-ready in a very sober and realistic way that state legislators and state constitutional officers will be forced to address these deeply seated and decades-old problems that fundamentally undermine our students and public education overall. 


I am proud that we began building our systems and structures for this organizing effort towards strike readiness with citywide meetings in September 2016 and January 2017. We will continue to be in very good touch with you about building strike readiness by February 2018, as an essential ingredient in the strategy to win a great contract and protect active and retiree health benefits. We have been preparing for this together. We can do this together. We must do this together. We can win.


One of the things that most inspired me about my school-site meetings with Maria, George, Lesa, Javier, and their co-workers at Lassen, Bancroft, Westwood, and 20th Street was seeing firsthand the growing understanding of all of our members of the big picture that we face — at the federal, state, and local levels — and the growing understanding among members that, to be effective, we must connect the dots between our classroom struggles, representation issues, School Board races, fights for state legislation, and more. 
But not just that. What is inspiring is that, even though our job descriptions when we became educators didn’t include “Must be a fighter for the civic institution of public education,” there is a palpable and growing commitment and passion among our members to get involved in the fight for educational justice, for schools, for our students, for our profession, with parents, youth, and partners by our side. In these meetings at these four schools, this commitment and passion was very concrete — all four schools ended up doing massive work in support of the School Board races and were strongly represented at the May 12 legislative actions. 
Remember, our fight is right, and our fight flows together with movements throughout history for strong public schools as bedrocks of a good society, for democracy, for civil rights, and for justice. We will do all of this together — leaning on each other, connecting with our students and their families, and making history.
It is a privilege and honor to be with you — those who stand with our students every day.


Give each other congratulations on another powerful academic year. Give each other a pat on the back or a shake of the hand. You are great. Let’s keep moving forward.